Collaboration’s fragility

Posted by on Sep 19, 2011 in Blog, Communication | 0 comments

We all know that collaborating with other departments is hard. We all have visceral memories of failed projects, outrageous behavior and painful betrayals. When my colleagues talk about these experiences, I can see the sadness and anger in their eyes.

Even decades later, the wounds remain raw, the lessons learned fresh, and the resentments intact.

But most of us have had great cross-functional collaborations as well. Ask about those magical projects when everyone pulled in one direction, unified, synchronized and coordinated, and eyes twinkle with excitement. When groups face tough problems and overcome them together, the warm feelings last a lifetime.

Clearly, we all want every collaborative effort to be one of those ideal experiences, but we get the disasters much more often. This isn’t too surprising, really. Everything has to go right to make a collaboration work well, but only one or two things need to go wrong to undermine that cooperative ecstasy. Collaboration is a fragile thing, difficult to create, and easy to break.

So what stands in the way of building more good experiences? Many of the obstacles are well known, but others are much more subtle. I tend to think of them in categories.

Structural obstacles are rooted in organizational configuration and geography. It’s hard to work with people you’ve never met or who work when you sleep, speak a different native language or have unfamiliar cultural assumptions. It’s also hard to build consensus across organizational boundaries. Interests and incentives often conflict. Sometimes, people are parochial and fight for whatever benefits themselves or their group, or they conflate the interests of their group with those of the organization at large.

Legal obstacles arise out of rote enforcement of rules, be they contractual, procedural or regulatory. Unfeeling, mechanical enforcement of rules often undermines the trust required for collaboration, especially when people use regulations as substitutes for relationships. Rules are sometimes specifically designed to minimize collaboration, imposing checks and balances on negative behaviors that can result from collusion. And sometimes processes that are designed to balance competing interests reinforce antagonism unnecessarily in practice.

Technical obstacles are imposed by the tools we use. Each technology embodies a view of the world embedded in the designer’s vision. To use the tool effectively, we need to understand and adopt that view. When the way a tool is used comes into conflict with the way businesses run, we also come into conflict.

Social obstacles are the most pervasive and difficult to deal with. They are rooted in the human experience of group life, of the differences between organizational, departmental and national cultures. It’s easy to see that language is a barrier to communication. But more subtle obstacles are at play as well. Each subgroup develops patterns of thinking and behaving that make them successful in the work they do. For example, technical people often view everything as either a problem or a solution. If groups’ habits of thought are incompatible, collaboration is undermined.

Clearly, it is possible to build outstanding cross-functional teams. Just remember that you are building something that’s very fragile and expands slowly.

In short, to create collaboration, don’t kill it.

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